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10 Questions With USA Lacrosse & Penn State Alum Katie O’Donnell

As the first Penn State women’s lacrosse player to be named the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year back in 2018, Katie O’Donnell made an impact in her time in Happy Valley.

Now, O’Donnell represents Penn State on an even bigger stage: the U.S. Women’s National Lacrosse team. Being recruited for the team shortly after her graduation and the team’s 2017 World Cup gold medal win, O’Donnell made her return to the field along with the rest of the national team at the USA Lacrosse Fall Classic on October 15, which were the first games since the pandemic began.

We sat down with O’Donnell to find out what it’s been like to be part of Team USA.

OS: What have you been up to since graduating from Penn State?

KO: Since I graduated, I played in the Women’s Premier Lacrosse League, one of the original women’s lacrosse pro leagues. In my first year out of college, I worked in the corporate world. I was invited to a Team USA training event for the first time that same year, and it made me realize that I still loved the game so much and wanted to stay in it. So, after a year of being in the corporate world and playing with Team USA, I got a coaching job at Lehigh University. I spent the last two years there and then, most recently, I took a job at Drexel University as an assistant women’s lacrosse coach. The various pro leagues and coaching, as well as Team USA, have taken up most of my time.

OS: How is coaching different from playing? Do you like one better than the other?

KO: I wouldn’t say I necessarily like one more than the other. They’re very different and rewarding in different ways. I don’t think there’s anything like playing and competing. That’s something really special and I’ve been really grateful to be able to do it at the highest level. Coaching has been just as rewarding, but in other ways, like being able to give back and help make the experiences of the athletes I’ve worked with as good as mine was at Penn State, and hoping that they get as much out of the game as I have. It’s different types of fun. When you’re playing, you’re in total control, and when you’re coaching, you’re not. You have to trust the kids. But it’s been a lot of fun, and if I could play forever I would. Obviously, I can’t, so coaching is just as great. It’s a really close second to playing forever. I’d go back to college in a heartbeat, but I love being on the field with my athletes.

OS: What was it like to play lacrosse at Penn State?

KO: My playing time at Penn State was the best four years of my life. My time at Penn State was transformational, in a way. I loved every second of it. I loved my coaches, my teammates, the time, and the competing. It’s that experience that makes you want to stay in the game however you can. I owe it all to my four years at Penn State. A huge shoutout to my coach, Missy Doherty, who’s still the current coach, for recruiting me and bringing me there. She was such a great mentor and coach and is still a mentor now, and she’s someone I consider to be a friend.

OS: Are there any Penn State lacrosse players that you’d want on Team USA?

KO: I think the current team has a lot of really young talent, and I can’t wait to see what they do these next few years. I’m sure some of the girls on the Penn State roster will end up on the Team USA roster down the road. As far as players from my past, I’d play with all of them every day of the week. I wouldn’t trade any of my college team for anything.

OS: Did you have any game day superstitions at Penn State that carried over to Team USA?

KO: I wore the same headband in college that I still wear now. My cousin is in the military, and he was deployed, so during my senior year I put his unit’s patch on my headband, and it’s still there. I wear it for every game. I probably had more in college than I do now. In college, I had to have a peanut butter and jelly [sandwich] before every game, and I still do that if I have the supplies at my disposal. Mainly, my headband and wearing my hair braided in a ponytail.

OS: What is your favorite memory at Penn State, lacrosse or otherwise?

KO: That’s so hard. I think probably my sophomore year, we made it to the final four for the first time in a very long time. We got off the bus for our semifinal game against UNC, and we probably had 200 people greeting us at the bus that were friends, family, and past Penn State lacrosse players going crazy. I think that was the moment I realized how big of a deal it was. When I decided to come to Penn State, I knew it was going to be competitive and I’d be playing college lacrosse, but I didn’t go there knowing that I was going to be competing for a national championship. We’d won the inaugural Big Ten tournament my freshmen year, but then we went to the final four my sophomore year when we were just playing lacrosse. We were just having fun. That was the most impactful. The most fun was beating Florida my sophomore year during the first round of NCAA’s. We weren’t supposed to do that. It was the ultimate underdog game, and I remember the feeling when we won. It’s something you want to experience every day.

OS: What was it like finding out you were going to represent Team USA?

KO: It was really special. I was surprised. I never thought I’d get that opportunity. It never dawned on me that I’d ever get a call asking to come train with them and continuously getting the call to be invited back. There’s no greater feeling. I’m still really thankful. The first weekend I put on the jersey and stood on the field for the national anthem, my hand was over my heart shaking. That’s how surreal it was. It still is that cool. We’re winding down with World Cup coming up, and there’s still a lot of unknowns. No matter what the outcome is as far as what happens with me for Team USA, the last three and a half years have been something that I’ll never take for granted. I got to put on the jersey, and not everyone gets to say that.

OS: You have college sophomores and head coaches of major college programs on Team USA. Is the age difference noticeable?

KO: Well, us old players take a lot longer to warm up than others do. But I think everyone comes in super competitive. Those that have been around a little longer play with a little more confidence and wherewithal of the game and are just wiser. The young ones come in with a whole lot of fire. They have athleticism and speed. They come in and crush. When we all come together, whether you’re 18 or 34, we all just play as one.

OS: Would you ever want to come back and coach at Penn State?

KO: I think down the line I could see myself there again. I love it there. It’s the happiest place in the world. The air is different. But, I love that it was my place for four years, for now. I like being the cool alum that comes back. I wouldn’t say it’s a goal I set in stone right now. If they ask me to come back a couple years from now, maybe it would be a yes. I’m really happy with where I’m at right now, though.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur, which would you be and why?

KO: I think I’d be a triceratops. I feel like they’re one of the friendlier dinosaurs. I might be thinking of a kids’ movie, but that was the nice dinosaur. They were everyone’s friends, but they had all the horns, so they’re kind of unapproachable. Missy Doherty used to tell me I scared her because I had serious faces, so that’s probably me. If you mess with me, I’m going to come at you with my little horns. Plus, everyone gets along with them, for the most part.

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About the Author

Caitlin Burns

Caitlin is a senior majoring in english. She watches "Dance Moms" from the beginning three times a year and thinks she's a barista because she can make one drink from Starbucks. She can usually be found taking a nap or being unreasonably angry at small inconveniences. You can contact her at [email protected]

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